My baby is only three months old and I'd love to enjoy some beach time with her, but I'm wondering about her being out in the sun at such a young age. Is this okay? Is sunscreen safe for her?
The expert answers:
Babies have very delicate skin, so they are especially vulnerable to the dangerous effects of the sun. Babies burn much more easily than adults, and sun damage done during childhood can affect skin health for a lifetime. You can take your baby outside, but you would be wise to take precautions to protect her from the sun.
Protecting your baby's delicate skin
While protecting your baby from the sun is important, it's unrealistic to think that you'll never be outside with your baby on a sunny day! Here's how to keep your baby safe while enjoying the outdoors:
- Keep her out of direct sunlight, particularly when the sun's rays are the strongest, between 10 am and 4 pm. Sit under a tree, an umbrella or in the shade of a building, or put your baby in her stroller with the canopy over her head.
- Put a wide-brimmed hat on your little one whenever you're out in the sun. Your baby will get used to wearing a hat if you start when she is little. If your baby is older and resists keeping a hat on, you'll need to use your powers of persuasion and distraction to keep the hat where it belongs.
- Professionals often recommend dressing your baby in a long-sleeved shirt and long pants; these can be lightweight as long as the material is tightly woven. You can determine how much sun will come through clothes by holding them up to a bright light. The tighter the weave, the less light -- and sunlight -- that will come through the fabric. This can be tricky because she may get warmer dressed like this, so pay attention to how your baby feels and looks, and if you put her in shorts be extra vigilant about the time she spends in the sun.
- Consider adding sunglasses with UV protection to your baby's summer wardrobe.
What about sunscreen?
In general, avoid using sunscreen on a baby younger than six months old. There are exceptions, however, and you should defer to common sense. For example, if you want to let your baby explore the beach, but hot weather prevents you from keeping all of her skin covered, it is fine to use a small amount of sunscreen on the areas not covered. (Be careful not to put lotion around her eyes, and keep the lotion away from her hands, since they may end up in her mouth.) Slight exposure to sunscreen is better than damaging, painful exposure to the sun.
With babies older than six months, always use sunscreen when going out into the sun. First, test a patch of sunscreen at home and wait for a few hours, or even overnight, to be sure your baby doesn't have an allergic reaction to the lotion. Read the label on your sunscreen to determine how often it needs to be reapplied -- its effectiveness does wear off.
Choose sunscreen formulated especially for children. Read the label to make sure the lotion protects against both UVA and UVB rays. Sunscreen should have an SPF (Sun Protection Factor) of at least 15 and should be waterproof if your baby is going to be getting wet.
If your child is fair skinned, if you are going to be spending a long time outside, or if you just want more sun protection, opt for a much higher SPF. Alternatives to typical sunscreens include non-chemical varieties available in health food and body lotion stores, and zinc oxide (good for the face and shoulders).
More sun facts
Keep in mind that sand, water, concrete and snow all reflect the sun's rays, making them even more potent. And don't forget that the sun's ultraviolet rays are almost as strong on a cloudy day as on a sunny one.
You'll also want to keep on eye on your baby to make sure she doesn't develop heat exhaustion. You can protect her by keeping her in shady areas, and having her stay well hydrated.
What if my baby does get sunburn?
Even with the best planning, sometimes we get caught off-guard. If you notice that your baby has become bright pink or red from the sun, here's what to do:
- Immediately get your baby out of the sun.
- Keep your baby well hydrated with breastmilk, water or juice.
- Give your baby a bath in a few inches of lukewarm water and let her play and splash, or wipe her with a cool, wet cloth.
- If your baby is younger than six months old, call your pediatrician and describe the extent of the burn. If your baby is older than six months, call the doctor if you notice blisters, pain or fever.
- Keep her out of the sun until the burn has healed.
Vitamin D, the sunshine vitamin
We get vitamin D from certain foods, such as milk, eggs, and fish. Breastfed babies receive small amounts of vitamin D from breastmilk, but it is in a form that is easily absorbed and used by your baby's body. (Although some pediatricians suggest vitamin A and D drops for breastfed babies, particularly in communities where there is little sunshine.)
Formula-fed babies receive vitamin D from most formulas, since they are enriched with this vitamin. Our bodies also make vitamin D when we are exposed to sunlight. You don't have to put your baby at risk for sunburn to allow him the benefits of sunlight. As little as 10 to 20 minutes a day in the outdoors is often enough for a baby's body to produce adequate vitamin D.